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Iceland 2018
Directed by
Benedikt Erlingsson
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Woman At War

Synopsis: Choirmistress by day, eco-warrior by night, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has to face the ethical, social and personal consequences of her non-acquiescence to The Man.

The beauty of Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is that being a fictional drama it has an impact that most environmental documentaries, sincere and informed as they may be, do not have (an exception might be the 2009 Oscar winner, The Cove). The reason for this is that, as the title suggests, Woman at War, brings us face to face not with a dispiriting litany of bad news about our dying planet but rather an inspiring story (the fact that it is fictional, aside) of one woman’s bold refusal to accept what she considers to be a moral travesty.

Halla believes in direct action and her targets are polluting aluminium smelters near her provincial Icelandic home town. Although this means evading a panoply of modern surveillance technology - infra-red cameras, helicoptes and drones and mobile phone tapping, Woman at War is not an espionage thriller, for this material is blended with Halla’s relationship with her twin sister, a yoga teacher and ashramite (Halla herself practices t’ai chi). Both have applied to adopt a child from the Ukraine (presumably orphaned by the civil war in the east of the country so depressingly described in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent Donbass) where the fact they are both single and middle-aged is not an insuperable hurdle.  As Halla prepares to welcome a four year old child into her life she goes about planning her most dangerous action yet - to bring down one of the towers that carry the wires that supply the electricity to the smelters.

Adding a kind of allegorical, and one would have to say characteristically Scandinavian (compare, for example, You, The Living, 2008) dimension to these proceeding is the surreal  inclusion of a live band made up of a sousaphone, piano and drums and a three woman chorus in Ukrainian national dress who punctuate the action and provide the film’s score. Initially this feels a little strained but gradually one comes to enjoy their musical contribution, On top of this, a straight-out comedic element appears in the from a hapless foreign backpacker who keeps getting mistaken by the police for the saboteur.

Geirharðsdóttir, playing both sisters (the duplication is seamlessly achieved), gives an energetic yet at the same time, touching performance as Erlingsson’s script, which he co-wrote with Ólafur Egilsson, deftly draws out the complexities of Halla‘s impassioned stand. My only reservation is the final scene, one whose point was to me opaque and therefore felt unnecessary.

Notwithstanding this, Woman at War is a marvellously rich and rewarding film. Of course it will have only a short theatrical run here so make the effort to see it soon.




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